I reached a kind of milestone in my development as a writer this week, when two reviews I had written for print offended somebody and got spiked before they made it into the newspaper. For a couple of weeks now I’ve been writing reviews for what’s essentially a start-up weekly newspaper up here in the northern suburbs of New York, the White Plains Times. It’s very much a community newspaper right now, but the ambition is to err on the side of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan etc. and eventually serve all of Westchester county. I’ve already reviewed Caché and The New World for the Times, to no controversy of which I’m aware, and I even did a superficial little Sundance round-up based on festival buzz as well as the few movies I actually got to see. My big idea for a piece this week was to honor Valentine’s Day by looking at a handful of new DVD releases that deal with love and/or sex: Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Eros, and the new SE of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The review of Corpse Bride, it turns out, was well-received in the office. The other two, not so much. And it’s not like the pieces were simply edited to remove the offending passages (I gather my description of Lena Olin down on all fours in front of Daniel Day-Lewis was a particular sore spot); the reviews were rejected out of hand.
So maybe I don’t know much about this community-newspaper jazz. But I do know one thing — at the merest whiff of controversy, it’s the duty of an Internet-based writer to blog about it. So here’s my jaunty little Valentine’s Day piece for the White Plains Times (published here with permission, naturally) exactly as I delivered it on Sunday night.
OK, the relationship movie of the year is called Brokeback Mountain and it’s now playing at a theater near you. But if you’re planning on spending February 14 inside, by yourself or with someone else, why not use it as an excuse to check out a DVD on the subject of love sweet love? Those savvy home video marketeers have synchronized some relationship-savvy releases with the impending arrival of Valentine’s Day, and several of them are can’t-miss good — here’s a look at an animated hit, some arthouse erotica, and a sexy 18-year-old prestige picture that just came back into print.
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
The best of the bunch may be Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, a whimsical, playfully grisly stop-motion-animated feature set in a 19th-century European village where nervous young groom-to-be Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) is transported away from his arranged marriage to Victoria (Emily Watson) to a fantastic underworld where the spirits of the dead frolic and Victor gets mixed up with, essentially, a lovesick zombie (Helena Bonham Carter). The subject, of course, is love, with our hero slowly realizing how much he cares for his land-of-the-living betrothed — but finding himself unwilling to just abandon the decaying, bereft Corpse Bride who seems to need him so badly.
Like Pixar’s brilliant computer animations, Corpse Bride is a beautiful example of how movies can be child-appropriate without hewing to the juiced-up, nausea-inducing clichés of much of what passes for kid-friendly pop culture. At the same time, there’s a lot here that’s meant to be appreciated by viewers with a little bit more life under their belts, like the sly references to classic horror movies (think James Whale meets Mario Bava) and the digs at marriages lived without passion. (When Victoria wonders aloud whether she and Victor will “like each other,” her mother’s response is derisive laughter: “Do you suppose your father and I like each other?”) If your tastes skew to the goth, or just the cheerfully morbid, you’ll find lots to like here.
But unlike the Pixar movies, this is clearly the work of traditionalists. In Hollywood, a land where time is money, it’s considered downright perverse to opt for the painstaking process of stop-motion animation, in which dozens of tiny figurines must be individually and physically tended on a miniature set, their every move accurately plotted and executed from frame to frame to frame. But the physicality of each scene is key to Corpse Bride’s sublime beauty — the character design, for instance, is genuinely beguiling. Victor’s impossibly slim frame is topped by a nearly heart-shaped head that tapers sharply to a pointy chin, accenting the sense of guilelessness, worry and wonder that accompany his trip to the land of the dead. And the Corpse Bride herself, all big eyes and Jolie lips (and tastefully revealing bridal gown) is, honestly, a bit of a fox. They’re matched by lovely performances that underscore the fact that we’re living in a golden age of Hollywood voice acting. (Before Pirates of the Caribbean came out, who knew Depp had the temperament for cartoons?) And there’s a host of spiders, skeletons and maggots who are animated at the same level of care and imagination.
The sets have been so lovingly conceived that almost every shot demands that you drink it in quickly, eyes darting across the backgrounds to catch this or that bit of whimsical decoration. It’s the ideal DVD movie because you can stop the image wherever you like, and every still frame feels like a small miracle.
OK, it’s not perfect. While Danny Elfman’s skills as a composer of film music have clearly been on the increase over the years, I still think both he and Burton overrate his talent as a songwriter, and the handful of songs he contributes here — including one that bears the weight of explaining the Corpse Bride’s backstory — feel more like they’re marking time than providing the intended musical lift. And, with his film’s running time coming in at just 77 minutes, you can imagine Burton was looking for some filler.
But, happily, this is one of those movies that gets better as it goes along, thick with story and laden with character. Just when it seems there’s no way to resolve the conflicts — not just among the characters, but in the sympathies of viewers, who have by now come to care as much about the Corpse Bride herself as about Victor and Victoria’s earthbound marriage — comes the climactic sequence, set inside a church where a wedding is about to take place. It’s poignant, exciting, clever, a little scary, and, finally, fantastically and unexpectedly moving. And it’s a demonstration of formidable sentimentality that Burton chooses an image of spectacular rebirth to close a film that mucks about so gleefully with representations of death.
If Corpse Bride is a celebration of love as a force that can overcome the very boundaries between life and death, then the arthouse anthology film Eros is an investigation of the way love, or simply lust, can be a confounding and disruptive force. Where Corpse Bride is about a kind of consummation, Eros has more to do with frustration.
Truth be told, the only reason to bother with Eros is the first segment, “The Hand,” which was contributed by the great Hong Kong-based director Wong Kar-wai, who’s been one of the primary forces to be reckoned with on the world cinema scene for more than a decade. (I’ve lost track of how many films I’ve seen over the past few years that aped the blurry, stutter-stop photography or the one great, melancholy time-lapse shot in his phenomenal double-romance Chungking Express.) He’s probably best-known in the U.S. for In the Mood for Love, a dark yet luminous meditation on erotic longing that got so much of its visual juice from observing the way some of the most gorgeous costumes in film history covered the female form.
In “The Hand,” Wong once again uses clothing as a symbol of physical desire. Zhang (Chang Chen) is a tailor’s apprentice whose most important customer is a courtesan named Ms. Hua (the outrageously great Gong Li), for whom he designs and fits the clothing she wears on the job. The film’s title refers unsubtly to the sexual act that she performs on him as an assertion of professional power the first time they meet. (“Never touched a woman before, have you?” she asks him. “Then how can you be a tailor?”) The encounter emboldens him as a tailor but, it seems, cripples him as a man. In some sense, he has become betrothed in his inner life to an unattainable woman.
In examining the ways in which a great love, or great obsession, can cripple someone emotionally, “The Hand” is very much of a piece with In the Mood for Love and especially its sequel, 2046, a character study of a romantic who has become, over time, a womanizer. Zhang becomes a successful tailor in his own right; Hua falls on hard times. And still Zhang feels the need to attend to her needs, to make her beautiful, and to continue to consummate his love by creating beautiful things for her to wear — elaborate floral prints that stretch across bosom and bottom, soft, tight skirts slit from the ankles all the way up to here, sheer blouses that reveal shades of the skin below. Eventually the act of making the clothing she wears for other men becomes as much of a fetish as the woman herself.
Of course, even the most beautiful of courtesans grows old and unwanted. And the fulcrum of “The Hand” is the scene, which plays twice, bookending the film, in which Zhang attends to his most beloved client, who has aged and taken ill with the passage of time. “Do you still remember how we met? And do you remember my hand?” she asks, unexpectedly. Despite an awkward, last-minute consummation, this is one of the saddest and moodiest love stories ever told.
At that point, you can just pop the disc out of the DVD player and move on. “The Hand” really deserves a whimsical chaser, but “Equilibrium” isn’t it. It feels like writer/director Steven Soderbergh is trying to get into full-on quirky mode, but this self-consciously screenwritten and highly art-directed bit of business about an advertising guy (Robert Downey Jr.) trying to figure out a new angle on alarm clocks in a session with his shrink (Alan Arkin) feels essentially empty. The requisite erotic content comes solely from a dream sequence featuring the spectacularly nude Ele Keats, bathing.
And “The Dangerous Thread of Things,” directed and co-written by the 93-year-old master filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni — who, on the evidence, hasn’t sufficiently recovered from the stroke he suffered in 1985 — is much worse, coming across as an English-language parody of European art films. To wit:
TOPLESS WOMAN: To you it’s always my fault.
COCKY DUDE: Well, who’s fault is it that things have started to cool off?
TOPLESS WOMAN: What are you talking about? Desire?
COCKY DUDE: You bet.
TOPLESS WOMAN: Because I try to stay away from desire. You’re always ready to satisfy it. Why don’t you just admit that it’s over? At least it will all be clear and we’ll know what to do. And you’ve always said it’s only a matter of saying that. Isn’t it what it is? Answer me!
COCKY DUDE: OK! Can we move now?
And then the camera lingers for one full minute as TOPLESS WOMAN does nothing more than put her clothes on, with a pretentious pop song playing in the background. If you just want to watch this by yourself, fair enough — the women are really lovely, and almost certainly more charming than whatever’s playing at the same time on adult pay per view. But be warned: if anyone else is in the room, eventually they’re going to ask, “Why are we still watching this?” And you won’t have a good answer for them.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Out of print for years but just reissued this week in a two-disc special edition — The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the sexiest of these titles, and also enjoys a top-drawer literary (based on the novel by Milan Kundera) pedigree. It’s a three-hour-long rumination on sex, love and politics that opens with a rakish Daniel Day-Lewis commanding a young nurse (Pascale Kalensky), “Take off your clothes.” And she responds, with a mocking smile, “But you saw everything last night.” And then director Philip Kaufman does something very sly. He starts shooting the scene from a camera in the room next door, where two doctors and a patient hooked to an IV drip are watching the exchange through frosted glass that resembles a movie screen — they’re clear stand-ins for the movie audience, as Kaufman, Day-Lewis, and the game Kalensky decisively make voyeurs of us all.
Indeed, the film’s very next sequence includes perhaps the film’s most famous shot — Sabina (Lena Olin), elaborately clad in black underwear, kneels on all fours, legs spread wide, over a full-length mirror as her lover Tomas (Day-Lewis) gazes on, so emblematic of the ubiquitous and voyeuristic “male gaze” female studies warned us about. “This shot offended a certain number of people at the time — particularly in America,” says Kaufman on the DVD’s commentary track. (Also giving the disc film-school cred by weighing in on their work here are co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, actress Lena Olin and ace sound editor Walter Murch.) And that’s the primary value of The Unbearable Lightness of Being — it flaunts its libido in a medium that so often represses it, or stylizes it to a degree where it’s unrecognizable as anything that might arouse an actual breathing human being.
The main problem with the film is that it’s based on an unfilmable novel. There’s no way for the screenplay to wrestle at the same length with the issues raised in Kundera’s book — such as his ruminations on Beethoven, or his ideas about the nature of kitsch itself — to so closely examine the politics of 1960s Czechoslovokia, or to adopt the novel’s symmetrical, musical structure. Instead, Kaufman found the story’s essence in performances, with the triangle of husband, wife Tereza (a startlingly girlish Juliette Binoche, in her first English-language film) and mistress speaking to the politics of the time and its characters’ degree of involvement with the world around them. There’s even a justly famous section toward the end of the first act that deftly utilizes stock footage of the 1968 Soviet invasion to convincingly place these characters inside the very unfolding of history. If it misses the fullness of its source material, it remains a sensitive and fascinating story of erotic life lived during a kind of wartime.
Does that make it the perfect date movie for intellectuals? Well, while it tries hard to engage intellectually with the feelings of female characters, on the visceral level the eroticism here, like most of what comes out of Hollywood, is male-identified (you can read the womanizing Tomas as a surrogate for Kundera himself if you like). But it does have a sense of sexy that veers consistently toward the sensual, and it’s not afraid to let women look and act like real woman. (You have to love the way Tereza, confronted for the first time with Tomas’ demand to “take off your clothes,” starts sneezing as though allergic to the very idea.) And the narrative grapples with its own philandering nature, eventually allowing Tomas and Tereza to find a life with each other that ends on an undeniably happy, if bittersweet, note. All that is to say that compared to what passes for adult content in American films these days, Unbearable Lightness is way ahead of the game.